Part 7 of series:
Thanksgiving: Not Just a Day, But a Season
Want a Happier, Healthier Life? Then Be Thankful!
Now, I know this sounds like pop psychobabble. But, in fact, serious research suggests that expressing gratitude for your blessings will, indeed, help you to be both happier and healthier.
Among the studies that demonstrate this connection, one is described in an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, report on their research. I’ll try to summarize their methodology and findings here.
Emmons and McCullough did three separate studies with groups of 201, 166, and 65 people. In all three groups, some participants were keep a journal entry of their blessings. Other participants were to keep a record of their “hassles” or of merely “neutral” events. All participants were required to record aspects of their well-being, including “moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals.” What were Emmons and McCullough seeking to discover? Here’s their statement of purpose for the study:
In the spirit of understanding the link between gratitude and happiness, the purpose of this research is to experimentally investigate the effects of a “grateful outlook” on psychological and physical well-being. More specifically, we address whether relative to focusing on complaints or on neutral life events, a focus on “counting one’s blessings” leads to enhanced psychological and physical functioning.
So, what did the researchers find? Here are their own words:
There do appear to exist benefits to regularly focusing on one’s blessings. The advantages are most pronounced when compared with a focus on hassles or complaints, yet are still apparent in comparison with simply reflecting the major events in one’s life, on ways in which one believes one is better off than comparison with others, or with a control group. In Study 1, we found that a weekly benefit listing was associated with more positive and optimistic appraisals of one’s life, more time spent exercising, and fewer reported physical symptoms. In Study 2, self-guided daily gratitude exercises were associated with higher levels of positive affect. People led to focus on their blessings were also more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another, suggesting prosocial motivation as a consequence of the gratitude induction. . . . We found that random assignment to the gratitude condition resulted in greater levels of positive affect, more sleep, better sleep quality, and greater optimism and a sense of connectedness to others. In Study 3, we even found that the gratitude intervention led to reductions in negative affect [for those suffering with neuromuscular disease] . . . [emphasis added].
In a nutshell, Emmons and McCullough found that people who considered their blessings and expressed gratitude were happier and healthier. They tended to be more active in helping others. And they also slept better. People suffering from illness experienced a lessening of negative affect.
You may be inclined to say that this study simply confirmed common sense and common experience. I agree. I’m not especially surprised by any of this. But I am impressed that when people take time to think about and record their blessings, their lives improve demonstrably and tangibly.
So here’s a reason to take time to feel thankful and to express your gratitude: you’ll have a better life.
Now, as a Christian, I believe there are other reasons to thank God, beginning with the fact that God deserves our gratitude. Then, of course, there’s the fact that Scripture calls us to be thankful. Then, there’s the positive impact of gratitude upon others. But, if you’re inclined to wonder about whether thanksgiving can make a difference in your own life, now you know. It will make your life better.
“But,” you may want to object, “I’m going through a particularly difficult time right now. How can I be thankful when . . .?” You fill in the blank with whatever ailment or challenge or pain is haunting you right now. Is it possible to thank God when life is hard? Tomorrow, I’ll address this question.